Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Draw the Curtain Close

Wall Street’s Toxic Message

Illustration by Edward Sorel
Illustration by Edward Sorel.
When the current crisis is over, the reputation of American-style capitalism will have taken a beating—not least because of the gap between what Washington practices and what it preaches. Disillusioned developing nations may well turn their backs on the free market, warns Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, posing new threats to global stability and U.S. security.

By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph E. StiglitzEvery crisis comes to an end—and, bleak as things seem now, the current economic crisis too shall pass. But no crisis, especially one of this severity, recedes without leaving a legacy. And among this one's legacies will be a worldwide battle over ideas—over what kind of economic system is likely to deliver the greatest benefit to the most people. Nowhere is that battle raging more hotly than in the Third World, among the 80 percent of the world's population that lives in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, 1.4 billion of whom subsist on less than $1.25 a day. In America, calling someone a socialist may be nothing more than a cheap shot. In much of the world, however, the battle between capitalism and socialism—or at least something that many Americans would label as socialism—still rages. While there may be no winners in the current economic crisis, there are losers, and among the big losers is support for American-style capitalism. This has consequences we'll be living with for a long time to come.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, marked the end of Communism as a viable idea. Yes, the problems with Communism had been manifest for decades. But after 1989 it was hard for anyone to say a word in its defense. For a while, it seemed that the defeat of Communism meant the sure victory of capitalism, particularly in its American form. Francis Fukuyama went as far as to proclaim "the end of history," defining democratic market capitalism as the final stage of social development, and declaring that all humanity was now heading in this direction. In truth, historians will mark the 20 years since 1989 as the short period of American triumphalism. With the collapse of great banks and financial houses, and the ensuing economic turmoil and chaotic attempts at rescue, that period is over. So, too, is the debate over "market fundamentalism," the notion that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth. Today only the deluded would argue that markets are self-correcting or that we can rely on the self-interested behavior of market participants to guarantee that everything works honestly and properly.


The Crooks Get Cash While the Poor Get Screwed

By Chris Hedges

AP photo / Amy Sancetta

Children leave a Chicago homeless shelter on their way to school. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of children in low-income families have at least one parent who works full-time.

Tearyan Brown became a father when he was 16. He did what a lot of inner-city kids desperate to make money do. He sold drugs. He was arrested and sent to jail three years later for dealing marijuana and PCP on the streets of Trenton, N.J., mostly to white kids driving in from the suburbs. It was a job which saw him robbed at gunpoint and stabbed in the chest. But it made him about $1,400 a week.

Brown, when he got out after three and a half years, was done with street life. He got a job as a security guard and then as a fork lift operator. He eventually made about $30,000 a year. He shepherded his son through high school, then college and a master's degree. His boy, now 24, is a high school teacher in Texas. Brown would not leave the streets of Trenton but his son would. It made him proud. It gave him hope.

And then one morning in 2005 when he was visiting his mother's house the cops showed up. He saw the cruiser and the officers standing on his mother's porch. He hurried down the block toward the home to see what was wrong. What was wrong was him. On the basis of a police photograph, he had been identified by an 82-year-old woman as the man who had robbed her of $9 at gunpoint a few hours earlier. The only other witness to the crime insisted the elderly victim was confused. The witness told the police Brown was innocent. Brown's friends said Brown was with them when the robbery took place.

"Why would I rob a woman for $9," he asks me. "I had been paid the day before. I had not committed a crime in 20 years. It didn't make any sense."

He was again sent to jail. But this time he was charged with armed robbery. If convicted, he would be locked away for many years. His grown son and his three young boys would live, as he had, without the presence of a father. The little ones—11-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—would be adults when he got out. When he met with his state-appointed attorney, the lawyer, like most state-appointed attorneys, pushed for accepting a plea bargain, one that would see him behind bars for at least the next decade. Brown pulled the pictures of his children out of his wallet, laid the pictures carefully on the table in front of the lawyer, looked at the faces of his children and broke down in tears. He shook and sobbed. It was a hard thing to do for a man who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weights 210 pounds and has coped with a lot in his life.

"I didn't do nothing," he choked out to the lawyer.

He refused the plea bargain offer. He sat in jail for the next two years before getting a trial. It was a time of deep despair. Jail had changed since he had last been incarcerated. The facilities were overcrowded, with inmates sleeping in corridors and on the floor. The gangs taunted those who, like Brown, were not affiliated with a gang. Gang members knocked trays of food to the floor. They pissed on mattresses. They stole canteen items and commissary orders. And there was nothing the victims could do about it. 

"See this," he says to me in a dimly lit coffee shop in downtown Trenton as he rolls up the right sleeve of his T-shirt. "It's the grim reaper. I got it in jail. I was so scared. I was scared I wouldn't get out this time. I was scared I would not see my kids grow up. They make their own tattoo guns in jail with a toothbrush, a staple and the motor of a Walkman. It cost me $15, well, not really dollars. I had to give him about 10 soups and a package of cigarettes. On the street this would be three or four hundred dollars."

Under the tattoo of the scythe-wielding, hooded figure are the words "Death Awaits."

He had a trial after two years in jail and was found not guilty. The sheriff's deputies in the courtroom said as he was walking out that they "had never seen anything like this." He reaches into his baggy jeans and pulls out his thin brown wallet. He opens it to show me a folded piece of paper. The paper says, "Verdict: Defendant found not guilty on all charges." It is dated Jan. 31, 2008.

But innocence and guilt are funny things in America. If you are rich and guilty, if you have defrauded banks and customers and investment firms of billions of dollars, as AIG or Citibank has, if you wear fancy suits and have degrees from elite universities that cost more per year than Brown used to make, you get taxpayer money. You get lots of it. You maintain the lavish lifestyle of jets and spas and million-dollar bonuses. You live a life of unchecked greed and have too much in a world where most have too little. If you are moral scum in America we take care of you. But if you are poor, if you are, say, Tearyan Brown and African-American and 39 years old with four kids and no job and you live in the inner city, you are in trouble. No one comes to help you. You don't get a second chance. This is what being poor means.


Financial lobby gears up effort against Obama plan

By Silla Brush

A coalition of financial services interests is in the process of organizing a major lobbying campaign against the Obama administration's plan for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

The plans are not yet final, but among the groups and firms in the discussion are the American Financial Services Association, Financial Services Roundtable, Mortgage Bankers Association and Community Bankers Association, according to two industry sources familiar with the plans.

The budget could be as high as several millions of dollars to organize grassroots opposition to the plan, launch an advertising campaign and contact congressional offices, according to one source.

The groups are hoping to get the effort up and running quickly because the administration and congressional leaders have set a tight timetable for passing legislation. They were listening to proposals on Wednesday from several advertising and grassroots advocacy firms.

Bill Threatens Congress’ Shield From Insider Trading Laws

Current Law Allows Congress to Profit From Valuable, Non-Public Information Floating on Hill

By Mike Lillis

Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) (house.gov)
Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) sponsored a bill to prevent members of Congress from trading on information gleaned from working on the Hill. (house.gov)

Illustration by: Matt MahurinIn November of 2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) took to the upper-chamber floor with a major announcement. The Senate, he revealed, would soon put its full weight behind legislation creating a multi-billion dollar fund to settle lawsuits from victims of asbestos exposure — lawsuits that had already bankrupted several building supply companies.

"I am pleased to inform my colleagues that asbestos reform will be the first major legislation that we consider in late January when we return," Frist said at the time.

For most of the country, Frist's speech was the first notice of that strategy. But for some Wall Street investors, his plan was old news that translated into big money. Indeed, shares of the world's largest sheet-rock company, Chicago-based USG Corp., jumped more than $2 — and trading volume nearly tripled — the day before Frist delivered his announcement.

Somehow, someway, the message that Congress was moving to help companies like USG had dribbled onto Wall Street before the rest of the world knew a thing about it. And trading on such leaks, it turns out, is perfectly legal.

Now, a small group of Democrats, backed by a host of public-interest groups, wants to prevent the use of similar non-public information to guide investment decisions. Under the bill, sponsored by Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), lawmakers and their staffs would be prohibited from trading in stocks, bonds and commodities markets based on insider knowledge gleaned from their everyday duties on Capitol Hill. The proposal would also prohibit the transfer of such information to other parties — a spouse; a brother-in-law; a political intelligence firm — who then use the information for trading purposes.

In a telephone interview last month, Baird said there's no clean evidence that such insider trading is endemic in Washington. "But in a town that trades on information," he added, the likelihood that it's happening is "almost a certainty."


Hitler Finds Out Sarah Palin Resigns


by Ted Rall

I miss Bush.

Stop the presses and shut off the RSS feeds: the bashiest of the Bush-bashers is starting to appreciate the Exile of Crawford.

I haven't forgiven George W. Bush for stealing two elections, starting two wars, bankrupting the treasury and doing his damnedest to turn the U.S. into a fascist state. He deserves one of hell's hottest picnic spots for refusing to lift a finger to bring the 9/11 murderers to justice. Bush was stupid. He was vicious. He should be in prison.

He was the worst president the U.S. had ever had. Until this one.

On major issues and a lot of minor ones, Obama is the same as or worse than Bush. But Bush had an opposition to contend with. Obama has a compliant Democratic Congress. Lulled to somnolent apathy by Obama's charming manners, mastery of English (and yes, the color of his skin), leftist activists and journalists have been reduced to quiet disappointment, mild grumbling and unaccountable patience.

I don't care about window dressing. Sure, it's nice that Obama is intelligent. But policies matter--not charm. And Obama's policies are at least as bad as Bush's.

Guantánamo was but the beginning of Obama's betrayals. First he ordered the camp closed--not immediately but in a year. Now he's expanding the U.S. concentration camp at Bagram--where 600 innocent men and children are being tortured--so he can send the 245 Gitmo prisoners there. In the Bush era, Gitmo POWs received legal representation. Obama has ordered that the POWs sent to Bagram not be allowed to see a lawyer.

You saw the headline: "OBAMA BANS TORTURE." But it was a lie. Obama's CIA director told Congress that there's a "review process that's built into [Obama's] executive order" that allows torture to continue. Leon Panetta said the Obama Administration will keep using at least 19 torture techniques against detainees. In addition, Team Obama will "look at those kinds of enhanced techniques to determine how effective they were or weren't and whether any appropriate revisions need to be made as a result of that."

As editorial boards of liberal newspapers tut-tut and the feds convene committees, the screams of the victims pierce the night.

Bush was the biggest spender in history, running up a $1.8 trillion deficit with wasteful wars and tax cuts. But next to Obama, Bush was a tightwad. Glamour Prez hasn't been around six months, yet the Congressional Budget Office reports that he already has quadrupled the deficit by an extra $8.1 trillion. "The total debt held by the public [will] rise from 57 percent of GDP in 2009 to 82 percent (!) of GDP in 2019," reports U.S. News & World Report.

Obama is sinking us into financial oblivion 72 times faster than Bush.

Where'd the money go? Mostly to insurance companies. Banks. Brokerage firms. Who used it to redecorate their offices and give themselves raises.

Against logic and history Obama claimed his bailout package would create jobs. Instead, unemployment has risen by 1.3 million. Has Obama's plan saved a single homeowner from foreclosure? Reporters can't find any.


The amount of United States arms sales in 2009 exceeded $40 billion

Volume of U.S. arms sales to other states is increasing rapidly and is likely in the current year will exceed the amount of $40 billion, reports Reuters , referring to Pentagon officials.

Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa (Jeffrey Wieringa), who heads the Agency for Security Cooperation and Defense Pentagon (Defense Security Cooperation Agency) said at the Paris Aviation Show in Le Bourget, that it is not yet clear whether the permanent increase quantity sold to U.S. weapons. Wieringa said that this was possible because of the desire of many countries to upgrade their weapons because of the obsolescence of existing.

Sales weapons is at "unprecedented levels" since the beginning of 2000, he consistently grew at $8 billion – $13 billion per year., said Vice-Admiral. In I half of this year sales of arms from the United States totaled $27 billion. It is about 60% of the expected annual turnover of U.S. $40 billion, "he said.


Will My Video Get 1 Million Views on YouTube? A Slate investigation reveals: not a chance.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand."Charlie Bit Me," the fourth most-viewed YouTube clip of all time, is a viral video in the truest sense of the word. In May 2007, the father of two British tykes uploaded a home video he wanted to share with the kids' godfather in Colorado and a few American colleagues. After three months, only a few dozen people had seen the video, and he considered taking it off the site. Then, something strange happened: On Aug. 24, 2007, the video was viewed 25 times in California. Three days later, that number was up to 79, with a dozen more coming in from Washington, Texas, and Wisconsin. The number of daily views doubled roughly every week as "Charlie Bit Me" spread around the country and through Europe. On Nov. 5, a couple of guys in Canada filmed a frame-by-frame remake. Two weeks later, CollegeHumor.com linked to the video, and by January it was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. A year and a half later, it's been watched 104 million times.

This is the great promise of YouTube: Your video can soar in popularity through sheer word-of mouth—or rather, click-of-mouth—until eventually people are making T-shirts about it. No one ever said this was going to happen for everyone. So, what are your chances of achieving YouTube stardom? I crunched the numbers to find out what percentage of YouTube videos hit it big, cracking even 10,000 or 100,000 views. The results: You might have better odds playing the lottery than of becoming a viral video sensation.

On Friday, May 22, I used Web-crawling software to capture the URLs of more than 10,000 YouTube videos as soon as they were uploaded. Over the next month, I checked in regularly to see how many views each video had gotten. After 31 days, only 250 of my YouTube hatchlings had more than 1,000 views—that comes out to 3.1 percent after you exclude the videos that were taken down before the month was up. A mere 25, 0.3 percent, had more than 10,000 views. Meanwhile, 65 percent of videos failed to break 50 views; 2.8 percent had zero views. That's the good news: Your video is slightly more likely to get more than 1,000 views than it is to get none at all.


Playing Whack-A-Mole With Data: The Pirate Bay Lives On

by J.J. King

Responses have been overwhelmingly negative to the news that The Pirate Bay will soon be sold to Global Gaming Factory. But what if there is a method to the apparent Pirate Bay madness — one that, as Peter Sunde has hinted, could actually be good for the P2P community?

kopimiLike everyone else I've been reading, talking to friends and thinking about this for the last couple of days. What I'm about to say is the result of that — my own opinion and nothing more.

Let's start with a great fact: that, as Rasmus Fleischer of Piratbyran points out, the entire Pirate Bay could fit on a single USB stick. This got me thinking: what if someone was to simply scrape and copy all The Pirate Bay's torrents over to a new tracker and Mininova and all the other indexes currently using the TPB tracker were to change their listings to point to that? OpenBitTorrent.com for example, an independent open tracker which started recently.

What if someone else — it could be anyone; it could be you! — decided to make a new index of these torrents. Call it 'The Pirate Ship', 'Brand New Pirate', whatever. I'm sure someone has already got a domain ready and waiting for this.

This new index would be functionally equivalent to The Pirate Bay. By the magic of copy-and-paste, TPB would have transplanted itself somewhere new. The corporate 'buyers' are free to run the old site into the ground with whatever specious business models they care to waste their shareholders' money on, while The Pirate Bay's new foundation uses it to fund interesting, new projects.

Think about it for a moment. What would be the downside of the sale here?

Privacy, possibly — a serious concern. Had The Pirate Bay been keeping logs of seeders and leechers, the acquiring company could — after flailing about for a few months trying to sell bits and bandwidth — auction this to the highest bidder. But TPB have been scrupulously failing to keep such logs. So provided people switch at the right time — as I'm sure they'll have the intelligence to — there will simply be nothing to sell.

Let's not be glib about it: after the shenanigans with insider trading, who knows if the deal goes through. But if it does, those behind TPB may have managed to square the circle, sliding out from behind the old, compromised identity while handing-off everything of value (tracker, torrents, users) to the community.

The very fact that this is possible should give those backing business models based on copy-restriction something serious to think about. Not only is this not a blow for P2P, it's a signal of something very worrying for the MPAA and Co. Spend years going after the world's most prominent pirate site, only to find that when you get it, it dematerializes and by the magic of copy-and-paste, reappears elsewhere in a different guise. It's like Whack-A-Mole with infinite holes, infinite moles, and just one hammer. Your odds: not good.

The feelings of betrayal and being 'sold out' by the TPB founders are natural. We believe(d) in The Pirate Bay; The Pirate Bay was 'forever'. But in one way, an important way, this belief was right: what made The Pirate Bay possible is forever.Even if I'm wrong, and a service like OpenBittorrent doesn't immediately get populated with all the torrents from the old database, the 'community' should learn some lessons from this:

(1) Big != Good

Let's face it: The Pirate Bay itself had become a huge focus of attention for those trying to preserve the old copy-restriction model of the culture industries. By some accounts TPB's tracker has been responsible for 50% of all Internet traffic, and its founders have been looming larger and larger, waving their pirate flags more and more visibly, for quite a few years. They are international celebrities and, love them as we might, that made them and TPB targets. It's not a secret that quite a few peers on the TPB trackers today are 'spies', there to gather data on legitimate peers — a real danger to Bittorrent users. And as well being feted, Brokep, Anakata and Tiamo have been followed, spied on, raided, arrested, maligned, sentenced and, now live under a real threat of imprisonment.

The bigger we get, the more of a target we are. Mininova, isoHunt and TPB have all been under siege these last years. We need to stop thinking about 'one stop shops' for our media. Distribution and aggregation point the way: think 'separation of powers'. Clients like Miro can aggregate feeds from a variety of sources according to the needs of the user. TPB may have represented the needs of the community for half a decade or more, but we don't need them. We are our own media infrastructure!

(2) We are all The Pirate Bay now…

… and this is why we have to amend our idea about what being a 'pirate' is. In the P2P world, as in that of Web 2.0, it's us and our sharing that makes the value. Hopefully some of the indignation leveled at The Pirate Bay in the last few days will cause us to think not only about the weirdness of entrusting all this value to TPB, but about all those corporate behemoths — Facebook, say, or Twitter or YouTube — who play fast and loose with the value that we create for them every day. Make no mistake, we'll wait a thousand years for the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world to start a foundation with the billions they have made from us and our interactions.

We're all The Pirate Bay now because we all make media; we all copy media, we all redistribute media and because the 'war against piracy' has criminalized us. Young or old, middle or working class, any of us could expect that letter from the RIAA or MPAA at any moment. Our online activities are routinely surveilled in the attempt to preserve a paradigm that is manifestly outdated. That fits well with the totalitarian mentality of many of our governments and it isn't to be accepted casually.


Street Fighting Men


Book Cover I actually lived through and participated in the era unimaginatively referred to as the Sixties—there was war and drugs and madness and dancing in the streets, assassinations and a presidential resignation and Woodstock and Watts, the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Grey Panthers, and, well, you know, a lot of action. And there were some heroes and villains. Recently, a few books have been published that add some small pieces to the incomplete historical jigsaw puzzle. In 1968, Mark Rudd, author of Underground: My Life With S.D.S. and the Weathermen (William Morrow, excerpt) was a Columbia undergraduate and a member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Rudd soon transmogrified into a more militant radical—one who founded the S.D.S. splinter group Weather Underground, which was responsible for the post-1968 "Days of Rage" and a string of bombings.

The Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) were '60s era radical Germans-turned-lethal terrorists who continued operating into the '70s and '80s, keeping various European intelligence agencies fully occupied. The monograph Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. by Stefan Aust and Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press) fills in the huge blank spaces behind the newspaper accounts.

Chesa Boudin's parents were radicals who were imprisoned in the early 1980s and entrusted his upbringing to Weatherman William Ayers (you know who he is) and Bernardine Dohrn. As a response to his parents' (real and surrogate) beliefs on issues of economic and labor justice, Boudin crisscrossed Latin America. In Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America (Scribner, excerpt), Boudin travels through 25 countries and melds his personal hegira with perceptive observations of the ongoing ecological devastation, intermittent economic crises, and the development and struggles of various indigenous movements.

Senator Franken

Bush Library Foundation President: Saddam’s Gun A Symbol That Bush ‘Disarmed Him Literally’

george-bush-cowboyThe New York Times reports today that when President Bush opens his library at Southern Methodist University in 2013, "visitors will most likely get to see one of his most treasured items: Saddam Hussein's pistol."

The Times notes that when visitors came to the White House, Bush often liked to show off the gun, which was found on Saddam when he was captured by U.S. special forces in December 2003. Referring to the gun's historical value, Bush Library Foundation President Mark Langdale presented an interesting twist on its symbolism:

Mark Langdale, the president of the George W. Bush Foundation, said the library would use items to highlight 25 of Mr. Bush's presidential decisions. "The gun is an interesting artifact, and it tells you that the United States captured Saddam Hussein and disarmed him literally," Mr. Langdale said. "How we fit that into the decision to go to war, we haven't gotten to that point yet."

"Disarmed him literally"? Saddam was already disarmed before the U.S.-led invasion. Maybe if the U.N. team that disarmed Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War had possession of the gun, then Langdale's metaphor would make sense. Moreover, when Bush said he wanted to "disarm" Saddam, he was referring to the Iraqi dictator's non-existent WMD — not his personal handgun.


'Aye' for getting more Americans registered to vote

by Keith Myers
A large crowd of Republicans caucusing at the Matt Ross Community Center, 8101 Marty in Overland Park, streamed through the registration area as they prepared to cast their vote on Saturday morning, Feb. 9, 2008.  KEITH MYERS/The Kansas City Starcutline: A large crowd of Republican voters streamed Saturday morning through registration in preparation for caucusing at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park.Here's how voter registration should work: You move, your registration moves with you. You turn 18, you're added to the voters' logs. You pay taxes, get a license, sign up for state or federal benefits, and registration is automatic.

But here's a dose of sad reality on the heels of another Independence Day: America, the world's shining beacon of democracy, does about as bad a job registering voters as any democracy on Earth.

A study released this week by the New York University's Brennan Center for Justice studied voter registration, rating 17 democracies. The nations surveyed had available information and "face the same fundamental challenges in maintaining accurate voter rolls."

America was dead last.

The United States registers 68 percent of the voting age population. All but three nations studied register 91 percent or better, including France and Burundi. That's right — despite being a new democracy, surviving a period of genocide, facing massive AIDS death tolls — this central African country was able to register 23 percent more of its voting population.